Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney

We mourn the loss today of Seamus Heaney, one of our great Nobel Laureates and probably the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.   A poet of his time concerned with rural life, politics and culture, his readings were hugely popular though he was far from being a self promoter.    In a land of writers and poets, his star shone and will continue to shine brightly.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I have three cats [one a runner-in] who, being outdoor toughies, dog my every step when I garden - not, I believe because of any great love for me but rather in the vague hope that somehow a tin of food will suddenly materialise in my hand.   So it is with some interest that I see that John Bradshaw has written a book, Cat Sense, which has attracted my attention.

Now normally, a cat book would be low on my list of must-haves but this does seem to be different with a more intellectual rather than sentimental approach.   There is an excellent historical section which, according, to Tom Cox in the Observer, 'gives invaluable background to his analysis of their sociability both with fellow members of their species and us'.   He also points out that one shouldn't assume various cats can live happily together - that I've learnt by experience too.   As Tom says, this book will certainly help you understand where they've come from, what they want from you, and where they might be going, if we're not careful!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This & That

I am sure you all read about the sad death of one of the giants of the American book scene, Elmore    Leonard.   Leonard published his first book in 1953, The Bounty Hunters, and went on to write 45 books though it was with Get Shorty that he amassed a huge following.   His books were full of humour - in a very black way - and his dialogue carried the narrative.   He painted his characters through their dialogue, a technique adopted by Roddy Doyle, and operated to strict rules.   He always used 'said' and never embroidered that simple verb and, according to himself, he eschewed those parts of a book that readers usually skip.  A unique writer.   Rest in peace, Elmore.

Here's one just out not to be missed:   Catherine O'Flynn has published her third novel, Mr Lynch's Holiday.   This one is based in a Spanish holiday village just before the 2008 crash and the expats who inhabit it, particularly Dermot who arrives there for his very first holiday abroad.   You may remember What Was Lost, Catherine's first novel which won multiple first novel awards in 2007, including the Costa, and was long listed for the Booker Prize.   I challenge anyone to make a novel about a shopping centre so absorbing so I can't wait to see what she does with a holiday village!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Transatlantic - and thinking on the Booker

Rather an odd longlist has been published for the Booker Prize and hard to judge considering two of the thirteen won't be published until September and one due out mid August, about now.   Three are from Irish authors including TransAtlantic by Colum McCann.   The weightiest - and one of the more interesting titles - is Richard House's The Kill but being effectively four books in one and with more than 1000 pages, not one to take to bed and fall asleep over.

Having been enthralled by Let The Great World Spin, I was anticipating great delights from TransAtlantic but let me say straight off, McCann disappoints.   The book is divided into two sections, the first being essentially nonfiction or rather his read of actual events and the second is pure fiction.   To marry fiction and nonfiction, something we are seeing more and more of, is hard to pull off and rarely succeeds well.   Perhaps it is the effort of delivering a true account of the nonfiction element that skewers the author's style complicated by the difficulty of marrying it with fiction.   Whatever the problem, this book lacks the stylish flow and lyricism of writing we got in Let The Great World Spin.   The connection of the fictional characters to the actual events is artificial and the whole is not really cohesive.

Set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, McCann paints an ambitious panoply of events on both sides of the Atlantic - in fact he leaps forward and back across the Pond with a panache the envy of modern travellers.   He covers the Famine, the American Civil War, Daniel O'Connell, the Troubles, the Wall Street Crash and a nod towards two World Wars and the current banking crisis.   The first section gives us a take on the Alcock and Brown transAtlantic flight followed by a long piece on the visit to Ireland of an ex-slave Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour organised by his Irish publisher in 1845 to raise money in the British Isles for the abolition cause.   This then is followed by a piece on George Mitchell sent to Northern Ireland by President Carter in 1998 and who was instrumental in bring about the peace process in the Good Friday Agreement.

The second section comprises four chapters on four women, descendants of each other, and establishes their links - if somewhat tenuous - to these three events and the effects on them and their lives by being touched by what they have seen or heard.   The first woman is Lily who is working as a housemaid in the house visited by Douglass in Dublin and who decides to emigrate to the States at age seventeen in 1846 - why is not really clear.   This chapter is followed then by ones on Lily's daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter who, predictably, is fighting with her bank to retain her home.  

The nonfiction section is at times interesting with snippets of information that McCann has done some indepth research to discover but is at times laboured and clunky.   It is only when he moves into the second section and the lives of his four women that the narrative flows in a way we expect from him.   Their connection to the events described however is a rather thin thread.   A holiday read, not a Booker winner.

Available in trade paperback at £12.99, published by Bloomsbury